Fixing the Brain With Computers

A Techwise Conversation with neurosurgeon and hacker Dr. Richard Bucholz

BY Steven Cherry // Mon, March 19, 2012

Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

In The Tempest, Prospero says, “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.”

Lewis Carroll, in Through the Looking Glass, sums up a hundred years of philosophical inquiry known as idealism when he asks, “Life, what is it but a dream?”

Idealism has never really been refuted, but scientists are increasingly looking to manipulating the brain itself to align it better with reality.

Disabilities such as epilepsy, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and even Parkinson’s disease are being treated with neuroimplants. Other scientists are working to substitute hearing for sight in blind people, and still others want to solve blindness entirely by implanting cameras in the brain.

Of course, in all the dramatic advances being made, occasionally a little bit of hype makes its way to our brains as well. A few years ago, a Wisconsin company called Wicab touted a device called the BrainPort, which put an array of electrodes in your mouth so that you could discern the shapes of objects in your environment as sensations on your tongue. In 2007, my then-colleague Sandra Upson wrote it up as a Loser in our annual Winners and Losers roundup of new technologies.

There’s so much going on in man-machine interfaces, I thought we’d bring in a world-class neuroscientist—and computer technologist—who has worked in many of these areas firsthand to sort it all out for us.

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